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Emile Zola

by William Dean Howells

November, 1996 [Etext #728]

The Project Gutenberg Etext of Emile Zola by William Dean Howells
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by William Dean Howells

In these times of electrical movement, the sort of construction
in the moral world for which ages were once needed, takes place
almost simultaneously with the event to be adjusted in history,
and as true a perspective forms itself as any in the past.  A few
weeks after the death of a poet of such great epical imagination,
such great ethical force, as Emile Zola, we may see him as
clearly and judge him as fairly as posterity alone was formerly
supposed able to see and to judge the heroes that antedated it. 
The present is always holding in solution the elements of the
future and the past, in fact; and whilst Zola still lived, in the
moments of his highest activity, the love and hate, the
intelligence and ignorance, of his motives and his work were as
evident, and were as accurately the measure of progressive and
retrogressive criticism, as they will be hereafter in any of the
literary periods to come.  There will never be criticism to
appreciate him more justly, to depreciate him more unjustly, than
that of his immediate contemporaries.  There will never be a day
when criticism will be of one mind about him, when he will no
longer be a question, and will have become a conclusion.
A conclusion is an accomplished fact, something finally ended,
something dead; and the extraordinary vitality of Zola, when he
was doing the things most characteristic of him, forbids the
notion of this in his case.  Like every man who embodies an
ideal, his individuality partook of what was imperishable in that
ideal.  Because he believed with his whole soul that fiction
should be the representation, and in no measure the
misrepresentation, of life, he will live as long as any history
of literature survives.  He will live as a question, a dispute,
an affair of inextinguishable debate; for the two principles of
the human mind, the love of the natural and the love of the
unnatural, the real and the unreal, the truthful and the
fanciful, are inalienable and indestructible. 


Zola embodied his ideal inadequately, as every man who embodies
an ideal must.  His realism was his creed, which he tried to make
his deed; but, before his fight was ended, and almost before he
began to forebode it a losing fight, he began to feel and to say
(for to feel, with that most virtuous and voracious spirit,
implied saying) that he was too much a romanticist by birth and
tradition, to exemplify realism in his work.  He could not be all
to the cause he honored that other men were--men like Flaubert
and Maupassant, and Tourguenieff and Tolstoy, and Galdos and
Valdes--because his intellectual youth had been nurtured on the
milk of romanticism at the breast of his mother-time.  He grew up
in the day when the great novelists and poets were romanticists,
and what he came to abhor he had first adored.  He was that
pathetic paradox, a prophet who cannot practise what he preaches,
who cannot build his doctrine into the edifice of a living faith.
Zola was none the less, but all the more, a poet in this.  He
conceived of reality poetically and always saw his human
documents, as he began early to call them, ranged in the form of
an epic poem.  He fell below the greatest of the Russians, to
whom alone he was inferior, in imagining that the affairs of men
group themselves strongly about a central interest to which they
constantly refer, and after whatever excursions definitely or
definitively return.  He was not willingly an epic poet, perhaps,
but he was an epic poet, nevertheless; and the imperfection of
his realism began with the perfection of his form.  Nature is
sometimes dramatic, though never on the hard and fast terms of
the theatre, but she is almost never epic; and Zola was always
epic.  One need only think over his books and his subjects to be
convinced of this:  "L'Assommoir" and drunkenness; "Nana" and
harlotry; "Germinale" and strikes; "L'Argent" and money getting
and losing in all its branches; "Pot-Bouille" and the cruel
squalor of poverty; "La Terre" and the life of the peasant; "Le
Debacle" and the decay of imperialism.  The largest of these
schemes does not extend beyond the periphery described by the
centrifugal whirl of its central motive, and the least of the
Rougon-Macquart series is of the same epicality as the grandest. 
Each is bound to a thesis, but reality is bound to no thesis. 
You cannot say where it begins or where it leaves off; and it
will not allow you to say precisely what its meaning or argument
is.  For this reason, there are no such perfect pieces of realism
as the plays of Ibsen, which have all or each a thesis, but do
not hold themselves bound to prove it, or even fully to state it;
after these, for reality, come the novels of Tolstoy, which are
of a direction so profound because so patient of aberration and

We think of beauty as implicated in symmetry, but there are
distinctly two kinds of beauty: the symmetrical and the
unsymmetrical, the beauty of the temple and the beauty of the
tree.  Life is not more symmetrical than a tree, and the effort
of art to give it balance and proportion is to make it as false
in effect as a tree clipped and trained to a certain shape.  The
Russians and the Scandinavians alone seem to have risen to a
consciousness of this in their imaginative literature, though the
English have always unconsciously obeyed the law of our being in
their generally crude and involuntary formulations of it.  In the
northern masters there is no appearance of what M. Ernest Dupuy
calls the joiner-work of the French fictionalists; and there is,
in the process, no joiner-work in Zola, but the final effect is
joiner-work.  It is a temple he builds, and not a tree he plants
and lets grow after he has planted the seed, and here he betrays
not only his French school but his Italian instinct.

In his form, Zola is classic, that is regular, symmetrical,
seeking the beauty of the temple rather than the beauty of the
tree.  If the fight in his day had been the earlier fight between
classicism and romanticism, instead of romanticism and realism,
his nature and tradition would have ranged him on the side of
classicism, though, as in the later event, his feeling might have
been romantic.  I think it has been the error of criticism not to
take due account of his Italian origin, or to recognize that he
was only half French, and that this half was his superficial
half.  At the bottom of his soul, though not perhaps at the
bottom of his heart, he was Italian, and of the great race which
in every science and every art seems to win the primacy when it
will.  The French, through the rhetoric of Napoleon III., imposed
themselves on the imagination of the world as the representatives
of the Latin race, but they are the least and the last of the
Latins, and the Italians are the first.  To his Italian origin
Zola owed not only the moralistic scope of his literary ambition,
but the depth and strength of his personal conscience, capable of
the austere puritanism which underlies the so-called immoralities
of his books, and incapable of the peculiar lubricity which we
call French, possibly to distinguish it from the lubricity of
other people rather than to declare it a thing solely French.  In
the face of all public and private corruptions, his soul is as
Piagnone as Savonarola's, and the vices of Arrabbiati, small and
great, are always his text, upon which he preaches virtue. 


Zola is to me so vast a theme that I can only hope here to touch
his work at a point or two, leaving the proof of my sayings
mostly to the honesty of the reader.  It will not require so
great an effort of his honesty now, as it once would, to own that
Zola's books, though often indecent, are never immoral, but
always most terribly, most pitilessly moral.  I am not saying now
that they ought to be in every family library, or that they could
be edifyingly committed to the hands of boys and girls; one of
our first publishing houses is about to issue an edition even of
the Bible "with those passages omitted which are usually skipped
in reading aloud"; and it is always a question how much young
people can be profitably allowed to know; how much they do know,
they alone can tell.  But as to the intention of Zola in his
books, I have no doubt of its righteousness.  His books may be,
and I suppose they often are, indecent, but they are not immoral;
they may disgust, but they will not deprave; only those already
rotten can scent corruption in them, and these, I think, may be
deceived by effluvia from within themselves.

It is to the glory of the French realists that they broke, one
and all, with the tradition of the French romanticists that vice
was or might be something graceful, something poetic, something
gay, brilliant, something superior almost, and at once boldly
presented it in its true figure, its spiritual and social and
physical squalor.  Beginning with Flaubert in his "Madame
Bovary," and passing through the whole line of their studies in
morbid anatomy, as the "Germinie Lacerteux" of the Goncourts, as
the "Bel-Ami" of Maupassant, and as all the books of Zola, you
have portraits as veracious as those of the Russians, or those of
Defoe, whom, indeed, more than any other master, Zola has made me
think of in his frankness.  Through his epicality he is Defoe's
inferior, though much more than his equal in the range and
implication of his work.

A whole world seems to stir in each of his books; and, though it
is a world altogether bent for the time being upon one thing, as
the actual world never is, every individual in it seems alive and
true to the fact.  M. Brunetiere says Zola's characters are not
true to the French fact; that his peasants, working-men,
citizens, soldiers are not French, whatever else they may be; but
this is merely M. Brunetiere's word against Zola's word, and Zola
had as good opportunities of knowing French life as Mr.
Brunetiere, whose aesthetics, as he betrays them in his
instances, are of a flabbiness which does not impart conviction. 
Word for word, I should take Zola's word as to the fact, not
because I have the means of affirming him more reliable, but
because I have rarely known the observant instinct of poets to
fail, and because I believe that every reader will find in
himself sufficient witness to the veracity of Zola's
characterizations.  These, if they are not true to the French
fact, are true to the human fact; and I should say that in these
the reality of Zola, unreal or ideal in his larger form, his
epicality, vitally resided.  His people live in the memory as
entirely as any people who have ever lived; and, however
devastating one's experience of them may be, it leaves no doubt
of their having been. 


It is not much to say of a work of literary art that it will
survive as a record of the times it treats of, and I would not
claim high value for Zola's fiction because it is such a true
picture of the Second Empire in its decline; yet, beyond any
other books have the quality that alone makes novels historical. 
That they include everything, that they do justice to all sides
and phases of the period, it would be fatuous to expect, and
ridiculous to demand.  It is not their epical character alone
that forbids this; it is the condition of every work of art,
which must choose its point of view, and include only the things
that fall within a certain scope.  One of Zola's polemical
delusions was to suppose that a fiction ought not to be
selective, and that his own fictions were not selective, but
portrayed the fact without choice and without limitation.  The
fact was that he was always choosing, and always limiting.  Even
a map chooses and limits, far more a picture.  Yet this delusion
of Zola's and its affirmation resulted in no end of
misunderstanding.  People said the noises of the streets, which
he supposed himself to have given with graphophonic fulness and
variety, were not music; and they were quite right.  Zola, as far
as his effects were voluntary, was not giving them music; he
openly loathed the sort of music they meant just as he openly
loathed art, and asked to be regarded as a man of science rather
than an artist.  Yet, at the end of the ends, he was an artist
and not a man of science.  His hand was perpetually selecting his
facts, and shaping them to one epical result, with an orchestral
accompaniment, which, though reporting the rudest noises of the
street, the vulgarest, the most offensive, was, in spite of him,
so reporting them that the result was harmony.

Zola was an artist, and one of the very greatest, but even before
and beyond that he was intensely a moralist, as only the
moralists of our true and noble time have been.  Not Tolstoy, not
Ibsen himself, has more profoundly and indignantly felt the
injustice of civilization, or more insistently shown the falsity
of its fundamental pretensions.  He did not make his books a
polemic for one cause or another; he was far too wise and sane
for that; but when he began to write them they became alive with
his sense of what was wrong and false and bad.  His tolerance is
less than Tolstoy's, because his resignation is not so great; it
is for the weak sinners and not for the strong, while Tolstoy's,
with that transcendent vision of his race, pierces the bounds
where the shows of strength and weakness cease and become of a
solidarity of error in which they are one.  But the ethics of his
work, like Tolstoy's, were always carrying over into his life. 
He did not try to live poverty and privation and hard labor, as
Tolstoy does; he surrounded himself with the graces and the
luxuries which his honestly earned money enabled him to buy; but
when an act of public and official atrocity disturbed the working
of his mind and revolted his nature, he could not rest again till
he had done his best to right it. 

The other day Zola died (by a casualty which one fancies he would
have liked to employ in a novel, if he had thought of it), and
the man whom he had befriended at the risk of all he had in the
world, his property, his liberty, his life itself, came to his
funeral in disguise, risking again all that Zola had risked, to
pay the last honors to his incomparable benefactor.

It was not the first time that a French literary man had devoted
himself to the cause of the oppressed, and made it his personal
affair, his charge, his inalienable trust.  But Voltaire's
championship of the persecuted Protestant had not the measure of
Zola's championship of the persecuted Jew, though in both
instances the courage and the persistence of the vindicator
forced the reopening of the case and resulted in final justice. 
It takes nothing from the heroism of Voltaire to recognize that
it was not so great as the heroism of Zola, and it takes nothing
from the heroism of Zola to recognize that it was effective in
the only country of Europe where such a case as that of Dreyfus
would have been reopened; where there was a public imagination
generous enough to conceive of undoing an act of immense public
cruelty.  At first this imagination was dormant, and the French
people conceived only of punishing the vindicator along with
victim, for daring to accuse their processes of injustice. 
Outrage, violence, and the peril of death greeted Zola from his
fellow-citizens, and from the authorities ignominy, fine, and
prison.  But nothing silenced or deterred him, and, in the swift
course of moral adjustment characteristic of our time, an
innumerable multitude of those who were ready a few years ago to
rend him in pieces joined in paying tribute to the greatness of
his soul, at the grave which received his body already buried
under an avalanche of flowers.  The government has not been so
prompt as the mob, but with the history of France in mind,
remembering how official action has always responded to the
national impulses in behalf of humanity and justice, one cannot
believe that the representatives of the French people will long
remain behind the French people in offering reparation to the
memory of one of the greatest and most heroic of French citizens.

It is a pity for the government that it did not take part in the
obsequies of Zola; it would have been well for the army, which he
was falsely supposed to have defamed, to have been present to
testify of the real service and honor he had done it.  But, in
good time enough, the reparation will be official as well as
popular, and when the monument to Zola, which has already risen
in the hearts of his countrymen, shall embody itself in enduring
marble or perennial bronze, the army will be there to join in its

There is no reason why criticism should affect an equal
hesitation.  Criticism no longer assumes to ascertain an author's
place in literature.  It is very well satisfied if it can say
something suggestive concerning the nature and quality of his
work, and it tries to say this with as little of the old air of
finality as it can manage to hide its poverty in.

After the words of M. Chaumie at the funeral, "Zola's life work
was dominated by anxiety for sincerity and truth, an anxiety
inspired by his great feelings of pity and justice," there seems
nothing left to do but to apply them to the examination of his
literary work.  They unlock the secret of his performance, if it
is any longer a secret, and they afford its justification in all
those respects where without them it could not be justified.  The
question of immorality has been set aside, and the indecency has
been admitted, but it remains for us to realize that anxiety for
sincerity and truth, springing from the sense of pity and
justice, makes indecency a condition of portraying human nature
so that it may look upon its image and be ashamed.

The moralist working imaginatively has always had to ask himself
how far he might go in illustration of his thesis, and he has not
hesitated, or if he has hesitated, he has not failed to go far
very far.  Defoe went far, Richardson went far, Ibsen has gone
far, Tolstoy has gone far, and if Zola went farther than any of
these, still he did not go so far as the immoralists have gone in
the portrayal of vicious things to allure where he wished to
repel.  There is really such a thing as high motive and such a
thing as low motive, though the processes are often so
bewilderingly alike in both cases.  The processes may confound
us, but there is no reason why we should be mistaken as to
motive, and as to Zola's motive I do not think M. Chaumie was
mistaken.  As to his methods, they by no means always reflected
his intentions.  He fancied himself working like a scientist who
has collected a vast number of specimens, and is deducing
principles from them.  But the fact is, he was always working
like an artist, seizing every suggestion of experience and
observation, turning it to the utmost account, piecing it out by
his invention, building it up into a structure of fiction where
its origin was lost to all but himself, and often even to
himself.  He supposed that he was recording and classifying, but
he was creating and vivifying.  Within the bounds of his epical
scheme, which was always factitious, every person was so natural
that his characters seemed like the characters of biography
rather than of fiction.  One does not remember them as one
remembers the characters of most novelists.  They had their being
in a design which was meant to represent a state of things, to
enforce an opinion of certain conditions; but they themselves
were free agencies, bound by no allegiance to the general frame,
and not apparently acting in behalf of the author, but only from
their own individuality.  At the moment of reading, they make the
impression of an intense reality, and they remain real, but one
recalls them as one recalls the people read of in last weeks's or
last year's newspaper.  What Zola did was less to import science
and its methods into the region of fiction, than journalism and
its methods; but in this he had his will only so far as his
nature of artist would allow.  He was no more a journalist than
he was a scientist by nature; and, in spite of his intentions and
in spite of his methods, he was essentially imaginative and
involuntarily creative. 


To me his literary history is very pathetic.  He was bred if not
born in the worship of the romantic, but his native faith was not
proof against his reason, as again his reason was not proof
against his native faith.  He preached a crusade against
romanticism, and fought a long fight with it, only to realize at
last that he was himself too romanticistic to succeed against it,
and heroically to own his defeat.  The hosts of romanticism
swarmed back over him and his followers, and prevailed, as we see
them still prevailing.  It was the error of the realists whom
Zola led, to suppose that people like truth in fiction better
than falsehood; they do not; they like falsehood best; and if
Zola had not been at heart a romanticist, he never would have
cherished his long delusion, he never could have deceived with
his vain hopes those whom he persuaded to be realistic, as he
himself did not succeed in being.

He wished to be a sort of historiographer writing the annals of a
family, and painting a period; but he was a poet, doing far more
than this, and contributing to creative literature as great works
of fiction as have been written in the epic form.  He was a
paradox on every side but one, and that was the human side, which
he would himself have held far worthier than the literary side. 
On the human side, the civic side, he was what he wished to be,
and not what any perversity of his elements made him.  He heard
one of those calls to supreme duty, which from time to time
select one man and not another for the response which they
require; and he rose to that duty with a grandeur which had all
the simplicity possible to a man of French civilization.  We may
think that there was something a little too dramatic in the
manner of his heroism, his martyry, and we may smile at certain
turns of rhetoric in the immortal letter accusing the French
nation of intolerable wrong, just as, in our smug Anglo-Saxon
conceit, we laughed at the procedure of the emotional courts
which he compelled to take cognizance of the immense misdeed
other courts had as emotionally committed.  But the event,
however indirectly and involuntarily, was justice which no other
people in Europe would have done, and perhaps not any people of
this more enlightened continent.

The success of Zola as a literary man has its imperfections, its
phases of defeat, but his success as a humanist is without flaw. 
He triumphed as wholly and as finally as it has ever been given a
man to triumph, and he made France triumph with him.  By his
hand, she added to the laurels she had won in the war of American
Independence, in the wars of the Revolution for liberty and
equality, in the campaigns for Italian Unity, the imperishable
leaf of a national acknowledgement of national error.

End of The Project Gutenberg Etext of Emile Zola